The Hospital: A Memoir


By Susan Michalek

It was 1975, and I was in the backseat of my grandfather’s 1966 Ford, Thunderbird. The car and I were the same age. The original white vinyl seats, by then had aged to a light yellow. He backed us out of his driveway, and we drove past the La Jolla Country Club’s golf course. My Grandparents living room view was of that golf course, and it was where my grandfather spent most of his free time. He had been the Club’s president for the year of 1973, a framed four by 6-foot photo of him hung in the entryway of the club, along with all the other club presidents, who were still living. After he died, the club took his photo down and gave it to my grandmother. She hung it on the back wall of her garage, his protective gaze facing his Thunderbird, which sat in that garage until my grandmother died 15 years later.

Their house was modest, two bedrooms, two baths, because that’s what you did when you grew up during the depression. They weren’t outwardly frivolous. Their extravagances were in their second house in Palm Desert, and memberships to two country clubs, one in the desert and one at home; and, it showed in the real jewelry he bought my grandmother. The only thing in their generation that lacked modesty was the size of the stones in the jewelry they bought for their wives.

There was a silver pull-out ashtray in the center back of my Grandfathers car seat. I pulled it out to open it and pushed it back to shut it – open, shut, open, shut – as we drove. It squeaked a little with each movement. He had to have felt it through his seat, but he didn’t say anything. My 16-year-old sister was next to me in the back seat; my grandmother was in the passenger seat. I was nervous, rail thin, and underweight; my doctors always said this during my physicals. Not clear of any of the rules yet. I was too young to be able to see through the chaos. I just lived ping-ponging around within it. What I did know was that I had better be polite, have good manners, and never curse. What seemed to matter the most to my parents, grandparents, and the minister at the church I went to with my father, was that I behaved well.

From the get go, I understood that if I didn’t, I would fall into the dark fiery pits of hell and burn there for all of eternity. With all the other bad people, those who were ruled by the devil that presided inside of them. The prospect of hell was totally terrifying, so I did what I was told to do. And I never let any of them know the flood of feelings – emotion- that ran through my body. And the restraint it took to suppress the living conscious (awake) part of me.

As we drove into the hospital parking lot, my grandmother gave my sister and I a little talk: “Now, you girls be good and kind to your mother. Don’t say anything to upset her; it’s up to you if she gets better.”

Our mother had been in there for a week, it was the first time, out of what would be 11 times over the following 25 years, that she would spend a few weeks in the mental ward of Sharp Hospital in San Diego, she was then 43 years old. All of us walked through the hospital doors together. But when we got to the psych ward my grandparents talked to the attending nurse and stayed behind in the waiting room.“You girls go on alone, and tell her that you love her,” said my grandmother.

Endless years on years, of that one question my mother would ask: “Do you love me? Over and over, needy, empty, begging for it, and never giving anything in return. Just raging, manipulation and provoking followed by “Do you love me?” She asked with a babyish tone in her voice. She seemed to have the devil inside of her.

The nurse walked my sister and me in through the metal double doors, which had 3” x 12” rectangular glass windows with chicken wire running through them, on the left side near the top. A tiny space, to see through to the corridor outside. When the doors shut behind us, we were locked in. There was no way out without a hospital attendant on the outside to press a button and unlock the door. This was her loss of freedom and society telling her that she was abnormal, removed from the herd, not domesticated enough to play the grown up games outside with all the others.

No matter how much money my mother got my grandfather to give her, which included buying her a four-bedroom house with a swimming pool and an ocean view, beautiful designer clothing, handbags, jewelry, and expensive cars, consuming goods couldn’t fix it; she couldn’t buy it, the fitting in part. Acclimating to the culture, containing all the aggression inside, she couldn’t be a mother and a wife.

The second those hospital doors closed and locked behind me, every nerve in my body was screaming, if nerves can scream, “I HAVE TO GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE, FLEE.” Oops, saying fuck was one mark towards the 9-year-old me, ending up in hell.

White walls with light gray low-pile industrial carpet, nothing on the walls, iron bars over the two windows, that looked out onto a parking lot. A lack of oxygen. The people inside were slogging around slowly, close to the walls, in pajama-like clothing, mostly looking down. The few, who looked up, held eye contact for an uncomfortably long time.

Almost like they were trying to stare into my youthful soul and steal a part of it, to get back what they’d lost.

It smelled of an equal combination of must and sanitary as if the chemicals they used to make the place clean couldn’t cut through the stale. It might have been that what they were doing was too cruel, to ever be made clean. No disinfecting this world, purgatory trapped in a state where you can’t escape. Where disorder is treated with a pill, and your pursuit of happiness will be futile.

The whole time locked in there, my inner thoughts were on the way out, the route out, down the hall to the left, make a right at the nurse’s station, ten more feet to the door, hoping the attendant would be on the other side and would buzz me out. I was in a low level of anxious panic, to be free, to not be trapped in that terrible place with those people who couldn’t fit in.

Natalie (my mother) was milder than usual, sedated. Her hair was flattened and smashed up against her face. She had one of those set hairdos stylish in the 1950’s, the perms that you had to go to the hairdresser every week to have them set. She kept it still, then 25 years later, and out of fashion, she didn’t know how change to adapt to the new trends. It was died jet black, it was course and thick, then with one inch of solid gray root growth visible. That marked the time of her being locked up, where she couldn’t get to the hairdresser. She had on slightly less makeup than usual. But, still the always smeared black eyeliner, greasy and uneven, too much. As if it were a declaration on her part to the outside world that she was going to play by her own rules. Wearing a type of war paint, sometimes with a bold use of bright green or blue eye shadow, other times just the black smear. And the bright red lipstick, that, with regularity, extended unevenly beyond the rim of her lips.

She was sitting on the edge of her assigned bed, in the windowless cubby, that was her room. There were two single beds, with light grey institutional bedspreads, and two brown veneer nightstands alongside them. She was slightly nervous in anticipation of our arrival. And at the same time, she was close to catatonic from the over load of drugs running through her system.

She stood up and hugged my sister first, and then me; her hugs were always stiff. She was tall, thin, and bony. Her long thin arms wound around me loosely never really touching me, just little parts of them here and there. Tiny little bits of connection, for seconds. Followed by a hitting on my back, with the flat of one of her hands, a kind of slap over and over.
She wanted to show us around the place, and introduce us to her friends. We walked out to the communal room. She had two friends, her roommate who was in her mid- thirties, in her former life she had been a secretary to a bank president, and a girl in her early 20’s, who in her second year of college entered into an emotional mind field that brought her to that place.

At the end of the visit, Natalie walked us to the locked door, and I said, “I love you.” That made her happy for a second but not longer, it never satiated the need. As if we could fill her up, the perpetual loneliness endemic to humans beings. The continuous and endless pull to be complete drove her to have us children. And now, somehow, it was expected of us, at such a young age, to fill her up by giving her all the love she so desperately wanted.

There was a nurse waiting on the other side of the locked door, we were let out immediately, all my anxious flight-worry for nothing. I walked down the hospital hallway waving goodbye to my mother as they shut and locked the doors in front of her. I knew that I would always have my freedom. No one was going to confine me like that. Lock me out of the world. Diagnosing me into a lesser station.

When cavemen started domesticating wolves, they took the most docile, least aggressive wolves and breed them together. The eventual results turned into the loving dogs we now share our lives with. The more feral wolves were left in the wild to be their full and true wolf selves. My mother was like one of those feral wolves. Not suitable for domestication, better left to roam and plunder in the wild. Only that isn’t really something you can do today, unless you’re really prepared to survive in the wilderness, and very few know how to anymore.



Susan Michalek

I’m a Costume Designer; I work on Television shows, generally comedies. I’ve been a Costume Designer for 19 years. I live in Santa Monica, CA. I spend a lot of time reading and writing when I’m off work.  I do it for freedom, challenge, peace, and an effort at a type of secular enlightenment. To better understand others, have compassion for them, and in turn, understand myself.


  1. Dearest Susan,
    Your story captivated me with a wide range of emotions. My great grandmother was also in a mental hospital. We were under the impression she passed before we were born-instead we found that she passed on just years ago. We learned of her story of shock therapy and delusional thoughts. As doctors continue research, I certainly hope we do better by our families. It is so horribly difficult to witness someone we love not act as they should…yet how do we abandon those we cherish?! My grandpa Ed Teplo after his strokes acted as a teen in love, it broke my mom’s heart to witness. May they all rest peacefully now. Your family is so proud of the person you are and the accomplishments that continue to inspire us. In each letter I’d received from Aunty Ella, I would hear about the show you were working on and the famous people you were dressing! May this be a very happy new year!

  2. I could picture the hair style so clearly…my mom went to the beauty parlor every week too. The meat of this is in the rawness of emotion. I can feel your resistance to being in that place, and even your inner vow to never end up there. Powerful emotions in this piece. Good job.

  3. A powerful piece, Susan. My heart breaks for you and your sister. “…it’s up to you if she gets better.” What a charge to lay on innocent children. Your gift is the honesty with which you let people see the bitterest of memories. Thank you for having the courage to share.

  4. Hi, Susan. Thank you for this contribution to Two Drops of Ink. So many of your descriptions, either of the car, your mother, the hospital, or your feelings are powerful. I also see your design aesthetic in those descriptions as well. I have worked in the field of addiction, recovery and mental health for over 25 years, and I was saddened by the comment from your grandparents about your responsibility to make your mother okay. That’s a burden no child should have to endure.

    Well done, good job, and I hope to read more from you.

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